Matt Cullens beats Henrik Lundqvist for the game-winning goal in the Rangers' 3-1 loss to the Penguins on Tuesday night at the Garden.Photo: Charles Wenzelberg (New York Post)
Signing him was more or less an afterthought to all but the most ardent believers in advanced statistics. When the Penguins brought in Matt Cullen this off-season, the thought was that he would be an OK fourth-line center, nothing more. The transaction was one that seemed tailor-made for the back page of the sports section, a footnote and nothing more.
However, given the dearth of stories to discuss during hockey’s preseason, there was some hand-wringing about whether Cullen’s presence would inhibit the development of someone like, say, Oskar Sundqvist. In retrospect, the idea that anyone would lose sleep over the issue is amusingly quaint. Sundqvist’s future seems just fine, and the Penguins’ is appreciably brighter thanks to Cullen.
It’s not that recent iterations of the Penguins would have wilted under the pressure of a 1-0 deficit. They were capable of making plays to get back into games, but those plays seemed few and far between when they did happen and usually were lost to the dustbin of history as indistinguishable missed opportunities. No one could reliably seize the moment, and invariably the moment was lost.
Thanks to a brilliant power-play effort from Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby, with what appeared to be a slight, unintentional assist from Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, the Penguins rallied to tie the game. Thanks to Cullen, they did what has been so difficult for them, and finally got on the right side of a 2-1 score against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers.
It was a simple enough play, with Cullen forcing a turnover that allowed him to walk in all alone on Lundqvist, who was helpless as the Pens’ elder statesman beat him five-hole for the game-winning goal. It was sudden, and it completed a turnaround that started with Crosby’s game-tying tally. The Penguins had controlled play against New York early in the third period but until that moment had nothing to show for it.
Missed opportunities tend to loom large and come back to haunt teams that can’t cash them in against Lundqvist. The Penguins know the tangible and psychological effects of this more than just about any other team in the league, having suffered four agonizing one-goal losses in last year’s playoffs, and having squandered a 3-1 series lead in 2014.
The diagnosis in both those series was that the Penguins had their chances, but the Rangers’ goalie was just too much. It is hard not to imagine every quality chance that passes without being paid off as another small dagger, another small piece of mental torture, another moment in time where the goal seems to shrink ever more, while the man guarding it gets bigger and bigger.
That obstacle, both in its tangible and intangible forms, has ruined the Pens. Cullen saw to it that this time would be different. It took a perfect play to beat King Henrik the first time, and merely a man shooting a dagger with conviction to torch him once more.
Cullen has given the Pens something they have not had since perhaps Bill Guerin’s initial stint with the club. He has been equal parts versatile veteran and wily goal scorer, a guy whose calm work in his own zone is just as, if not more important than his surprising play on offense.
His play has been the type measured both on the stat sheet and somewhere else, in the difficult to explain areas that often help decide playoff hockey games.
Though he only notched 16 goals this season, it’s hard not to think that good things are about to happen when he’s on the attack. Really, it’s hard not to think that good things are going to happen no matter where he is. At 39, he has become one of the Penguins’ most effective pieces. He has been a steadying force and a guy who has owned and seized the moment.
Tuesday, the moment was swift, brilliant and decisive. How ironic, that in the world’s most famous arena, it was arguably their least-heralded acquisition who wrested control of the series back to the Pens.